Business intelligence reaches out

The phrase “user friendly” may be overused, but it is one that continues to apply, especially as the concept becomes central to the growth of business intelligence.

Gone are the days when BI was the terrain dominated solely by high-tech analysts and power users. Vendors and enterprises today want the casual and business users to get on board.

Reporting and querying tools are finding their way onto desktops across the enterprise – not the least of which are those of executives.

This move has helped take the pressure of “small r” reporting off the shoulders of IT and power users and has instead allowed an organization’s executives and other users to create their own reports, and do a little drilling down on their own.

Norman Mackay, director of business intelligence for Fujitsu Consulting Canada in Calgary, noted that over the last couple of years, as BI has become more mainstream as a way of solving problems and gained acceptance in the enterprise, there has been an upswing in BI-related tools as well. Performance monitoring, scorecarding, business process monitoring and more powerful dashboarding have catapulted BI into the hearts and minds of executives.

“Before, the director or vp would go to analysts and say, ‘Give me this report.’ Now they have the information at their fingertips,” Mackay said, adding that in more progressive organizations executives want the information immediately and get it for themselves.

Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) is one organization that is trying to get to that level of progressiveness. Michael Clarke, manager of corporate and data management for the Calgary-based company, said the railway is trying to establish an environment where end users can do fairly simple things themselves.

The company has been working with Business Objects on a client server version to get people to use data more effectively.

“That means producing a basic report or even taking a canned report that shows key information and drilling down into the details when they want to see root causes,” Clarke said.

CPR supports early adopters as much as possible. The new breed of business analysts who are trying to solve business problems, but also take the time to learn the technology, always give back exceptional results to the company, Clarke said. “They are the best leverage for this information environment that we have by far, and they produce some really amazing things. So when we find one of those guys, we really support them and trumpet their results.” This leads others in the company to use the system too.

Tom Obright, director of information management for Ottawa-based Scouts Canada, said the organization is using a Databeacon BI solution to help get data into people’s hands. Scouts Canada had been running several different systems, each controlled by a regional or provincial council, so information was not being shared quickly enough. Obright noted that every September the Scouts would start its membership profiling, but the head office would not have numbers from the regional councils until March or even as late as August – which was no help in being proactive about increasing membership and volunteer numbers.

Using Siebel’s Web functionality, and having people centralize their data with Databeacon, has allowed councils to share information and strategies.

“In a youth service environment, analytics have not been the primary benchmark of success,” Obright said. “So we’ve been trying to work with people who see the potential and see what’s there. By using the predefined reports, we’ve been able to expand the width and breadth of questions that people are asking.”

Obright has found that bringing in predefined and easy-to-use BI has helped the executives define trends for themselves and use that to better focus volunteers and staff.

“For instance, our president or CEO would be talking to a volunteer in Toronto – the question before might have been, ‘How is your membership? I don’t really know your numbers, so how is it going?’ Now it’s, ‘I can see you’re doing well in the western half, but not the eastern half. How can we help?'”

That’s just scratching the surface, Obright said. He is now getting questions from council directors who may not be very technically literate, but are tinkering with the data and setting predefined views for themselves.

Mike Schiff, vice-president data warehousing and business intelligence for Sterling, Va.-based Current Analysis Inc., said this is all based on the idea that you cannot get IT involved with everything they need.

“You’ve got to empower business users, casual users if you will, with the ability to generate their own analyses and reports,” Schiff said. “It’s more the democratization of BI that is taking place.”

Empowered business users are no longer an anomaly. Guy Hudon, vice-president of business development for Montreal-based Odesia Solutions, a data warehouse shop, said people do not want to have to call IT to change a dashboard or metric; they want to do it themselves. Tools that allow them to do that are what enterprises are looking for.

“If the original focus was wanting to do dashboarding and the ability to do some drilling down, now we see users want to view the dashboards, query the data, analyze it and go through the reporting,” Hudon said.

Dashboards, like those in a car, offer basic data about a particular event or series of events. They will give results to a particular query, though not necessarily show why something occurred.

Vendors seem happy to fulfill the desires of the more BI-savvy end user. SAS, PeopleSoft, SAP, Cognos and others have all announced a focus on tools more easily accessible to the less technical user.

Recent consolidation of the BI market is allowing companies such as Business Objects – which bought Crystal Decisions – to focus even more on the casual user.

Darren Cunningham, group manager for the data integration product line at San Jose, Calif.-based Business Objects, said ease of use is always going to be a huge selling point for BI. “The fear factor is being reduced.”

No longer are results measured by a couple of people in the back office or a few executives on a portal, says Michael Corcoran, vice-president and chief communications officer for New York-based Information Builders Inc.

A year ago, Corcoran said, the issue for BI was how to put information in the customer’s hands while keeping security in mind. “Now (vendors and enterprises) are racing to provide more information to the customers.”

The more readily information is made available, the better off enterprises will be, Corcoran said. “It’s when you put all that information out there for users to see that they will go and measure their own performance.” They will start to answer a lot of their own questions, he said, taking some of the internal customer service angst away from the enterprise.

“People have become so much more educated and insightful about using these applications,” he added. “They figure out what you haven’t given them pretty quickly. That’s a major change in philosophy from what data warehouses were built for five to seven years ago.”

With the increased focus on the casual user and ease of use in the tools, where will this leave the power user?

Clarke said part of the plan for CPR has always been to put more information and expertise into the hands of the business user in order to free up the power user for more in-depth and more predictive data mining. “But it’s a tough row to hoe, I’m finding.”

In the past, Clarke said, and to a certain extent still today, the power user group spent a vast proportion of time collecting and collating information prior to producing anything. “We want to change the ratio of time they spend collecting and reporting to analyzing.”

Current Analysis’s Schiff noted that people with questions on the BI systems still need people to go to for help. “If you’re a na

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